Michigan Schools Struggle in Downturn

By Lawrence Hardy

Bitter cold was forecast for Pontiac, Mich., on a Tuesday in mid-January, but the mood inside the boardroom the previous night was anything but chilly. It was “Board Appreciation Day,” and everyone was invited to take part.

Board members seemed gratified by the testimonials, the silly gifts, and the big sheet cake emblazoned with the district logo, which they shared with the audience during a break. But it was the performances by students from three district elementary schools that touched them the most.

“You’re the Pontiac School Board and that’s a fact,” shouted five joyous children from Franklin Elementary School. “So when we see you coming, we’ll just step back!”

The audience and board members laughed and applauded. Later, Christopher Northcross, the longest-serving board member, told the children, “Those presentations were better for me than silver or gold.”

Two weeks later, the board voted to close Franklin Elementary next fall, along with seven other schools. The shuttering of nearly half the district’s campuses is part of an attempt to eliminate a $10 million deficit and respond to devastating enrollment declines over the past 15 years.

Those two actions—praising Franklin, its students and staff, and then turning around and voting to close it and the other schools—are not as contradictory as they might appear. For years, according to a consultant’s report, Pontiac failed to take the difficult steps it would need to survive as an urban school district. Its board was fractious and ineffectual, and its relations with the administration often were hostile.

Now, amid the most serious financial crisis it has faced, Pontiac at last has a school board that is widely praised for its cohesiveness, dedication, and willingness to make tough decisions. “NO SACRED COWS,” declared the final recommendation of a district committee on Pontiac’s redesign, which was chaired by Board President Damon O. Dorkins. In closing Franklin and the other schools, the board took those words to heart.

“I’ve seen this board grow from last year,” says interim Superintendent Linda Paramore. Another observer, Vickie L. Markavitch, executive director of the Oakland Intermediate School District, a regional service agency that serves Pontiac and several other districts, calls the decision “courageous.”

Whether that resolve will be enough to save Pontiac School District depends on more than the actions of its board and administrators. It depends on how well the embattled state of Michigan—particularly its auto industry-dependent southeastern corridor—can weather one of the worst financial crises in the nation’s history.

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